The Politics    Thursday, April 30, 2015

The smokescreen of moral indignation

By Sean Kelly

The smokescreen of moral indignation
Politicians should stop trying to hide behind confected outrage

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop have performed with grace over recent weeks. Faced with a horrendous situation unfolding in Indonesia, they have expressed anger and frustration on behalf of their citizens, applied what diplomatic pressure they could, and walked the fine line between calm and fury. Abbott made an early diplomatic misstep in bringing up Australia’s tsunami aid package, but that was months ago now.

It is hard to see what else the government could have done to avert the executions that took place on Tuesday night.

On Wednesday night, Labor’s justice spokesman, David Feeney, wrote to Justice Minister Michael Keenan asking why the government’s opposition to the death penalty had been removed from the ministerial direction to the Australian Federal Police. The reference in the directive had been added by Labor in 2010, and was removed by the government last year.

Keenan responded with wrath: “I might say that I’m pretty outraged and offended that the Labor Party would use the tragedy of two Australians being executed to make what is an incredibly cheap and invalid point. And I think they should take a long hard look at themselves if they think this is the sort of time to be politicking in a way that is completely inaccurate.”

Keenan is making two separate points here. The first is that Feeney’s point is “cheap and invalid”. The second is that this is the wrong time to raise it.

Keenan may have a point about the timing. Perhaps it would have been more appropriate for Labor to wait a few days more. (Feeney might argue that, if this important question were not raised now, it would quickly dissolve as the media cycle moved on.)

But Keenan is wrong when he calls Feeney “completely inaccurate”, because obviously Feeney is right on the facts.

And he is wrong – worse than that, wrong and disingenuous - when he uses the smokescreen of outrage and offence to avoid answering a fair question. Keenan dodged the substance of Feeney’s inquiry today, as did Julie Bishop when she described the controversy as a “cheap political shot”.

This type of manoeuvre is used on all sides. If a perfectly sensible question is asked on a sensitive matter – domestic violence, indigenous affairs, racism, sexism, executions – it is always open to a politician to respond with the tired refrain “How dare you!”

The Coalition last tried this back in February. Bill Shorten gave a speech in parliament responding to the Close the Gap report. He called for $500 million in government cuts to indigenous funding to be reversed, saying:

“When people fleeing family violence need a safe place to stay, cuts mean that shelters close … When having a lawyer can determine whether a first-time offender gets a second chance or a prison sentence, these cuts will rob indigenous Australians of legal aid.”

Eleven Coalition MPs walked out on the speech, one of them later accusing Shorten of demonstrating a lack of “judgement and leadership”.

It’s not hard to spot the problem here, or the cynicism of this response. There is not and should never be an obligation on Oppositions to remain silent simply because an issue is deemed “sensitive”.

That is not to say there are not questions of decorum – as I said, Feeney may well have spoken too soon. Politicians must always tread carefully, especially when they are talking about emotional matters. But to suggest that Shorten, in February, or Feeney, this week, did the wrong thing in simply asking valid questions about serious matters is absurd.

If anything, the sensitivity of these matters should alert us to their importance. And our politicians must be free to discuss important matters without fear of kneejerk censure.

Political conventions are there to create order and sense and dignity in political life, not to be abused for political convenience.

If a political convention prevents our politicians from questioning a half-billion-dollar cut to our most vulnerable population on the day the issue is most likely to get attention, then it might be time to think about whether we’re using that convention properly.

Australian Federal Police officers are likely to be called before a parliamentary committee to give evidence on their role in the arrests of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. Defence Minister Kevin Andrews has lashed out at the Indonesian president and described the handling of the executions as “a calculated snub”. Meanwhile, 17 Australians wait on death row. Waleed Aly on why Chan and Sukumaran never stood a chance. David Wroe on the problem with Joko. And controversy in a school which criticised the death penalty on its billboard.

Lethal injection has become the subject of legal debate in the US.

Screen Australia provided $90,000 in rebates to a creationist film, as originally reported in the Australian. The organisation is legally obliged to offer rebates to producers of all Australian feature films.

A new report finds that climate change will hurt Australians’ health – especially if you’re sick, elderly or poor.

A campaign has been launched to cut the number of Indigenous Australians in prison, and to reduce violence in Indigenous communities. Indigenous people make up just 2% to 3% of the Australian population, but more than 27% of the prison population.

Bud Light beer has been rightly criticised for using a slogan that read “The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night”.

An interesting article, published a year ago today, predicting the decline of Twitter. In the past 24 hours Twitter stocks plunged, partly due to a decline in user growth.


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Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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